In India, a Jewish Outpost Slowly Withers

Handicraft markets line a street in
Handicraft markets line a street in "Jew Town" in Kochi, India. The Jewish community that had flourished here for centuries has dwindled to a few elderly residents. (By Jason Gale -- Bloomberg News)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 27, 2007

KOCHI, India -- Down a narrow, stone-paved road in a quarter known here as "Jew Town," a woman with salt-and-pepper hair was sewing glittery beads onto the rim of a Jewish prayer cap. It was just after 3 p.m., and Sarah Cohen, wearing a housedress and flip-flops, sat in the sunny doorway of her shop, waiting for the visitors from around the world to come in for a visit.

Cohen lives right near the Pardesi Synagogue, which was built in 1568 when Jewish spice traders set up businesses in this small outpost of the Jewish world on the South Indian Malabar coast. The synagogue sparkles with colorful Indian chandeliers and green and red glass candleholders that swing from the ceiling beams. The floor is intricately patterned with blue and white tiles imported from a Jewish community in China in the 15th century.

As visitors wandered by on their way to the synagogue, one of the oldest in the world, they looked curiously at the little Jewish woman speaking in Malayalam, the language of the southern state of Kerala.

Cohen explained that she is a part of a dying tradition here that will probably no longer exist in 10 years, because most of the Jews who used to live here emigrated to Israel during its creation in 1948. Now, there are believed to be only 13 elderly Indian-born Jews -- from seven families -- still living in Kochi, a sun-dappled city thick with coconut palms.

"We couldn't bring ourselves to leave. We are Indians, too. Why should we leave the only place we have known as home?" Cohen said with a gentle wobble of her head, an Indian gesture sometimes used for emphasis. "Besides, I like this place. And I like the people."

Jews flourished in India for centuries -- from biblical times, some scholars say. The country also gave safe haven to Jews during World War II.

Small but active Jewish communities remain in Mumbai, including the so-called Baghdadi Jews who come from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan and are thought to have arrived about 250 years ago. In northeastern India, an estimated 9,000 Indians started practicing Judaism in the 1970s, saying they were a lost tribe and descendants of the tribe of Manasseh. Israel has recognized them as ethnically Jewish.

But in Kochi, there is concern that Jew Town soon will be little more than a quirky tourist destination.

On a recent afternoon, Cohen's friend Abdul Anas, 33, stopped by to check on her. He often looks in on her, since he was good friends with her husband, Jacob Cohen, a lawyer who died eight years ago.

Sarah Cohen and Anas spoke easily to each other in Malayalam. They laughed when Anas said that he was a Muslim but didn't mind working in Jew Town. They don't discuss Israel or politics, they said. "Who cares?" Sarah asked. "That's over there, and we are here," Anas shrugged.

"To me, it's a part of Indian history. Her husband always gave me fair work. I call her auntie. And she's alone now so I take her to the hospital when she is sick," said Anas, who sells postcards of the synagogue from his pushcart. "I feel bad for her. And actually I feel really sad that the community is dying out."

Israeli tourists to India, along with Jews from the United States, sometimes drop off boxes of matzoh ball soup mix and kosher cookies. "They tell me I remind them of their bubby," Cohen said, using the Yiddish word for grandmother.

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